Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An Unforgettable Character

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout

This collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction several months ago, deservedly so in my opinion. I like short stories, but have to admit that I have difficulty retaining them. With the exception of a few of Tolstoy's, I usually read short stories, enjoy them, and promptly forget them. For some reason my memory does not hang onto them like it does a novel or some other narrative. My theory is that there is just not enough time to bond with the characters of the short story before it is over. The reader just forms an idea of who each person is, and the narrative ends. If we are reading a collection, we are immediately on to something else, a whole other story with different people. Strout has dealt with that problem in a clever way by having Olive Kitteridge be the common thread that runs through each of these stories. Sometimes she is a principal character, other times she is peripheral, but she is always there. Her presence ties the whole collection together and gives it an anchor. It's a stroke of genius.

Olive is a complicated person - sometimes you love her and sometimes you want to smack her. She is caustic and sarcastic with her gentle spirited husband, Henry, but when he is debilitated by a stroke in a later story, she tends to him with fierce loyalty and devotion. She can also be unexpectedly compassionate with other characters, such as the anorexic girl in "Starving," and Marlene in "Basket of Trips."

There are times when , in spite of her mean streak, the reader feels empathy for her. I wanted to cry in "Little Bursts," when she is so proud of the dress she has made for her son's wedding, until she hears her new daughter-in-law whispering about how hideous it is. Also in "Security" when she totally screws up the visit with her son - she knows it but somehow cannot stop herself. There is something about Olive - her desire to connect with other people combined with her inability to do so, that makes us forgive her mistakes and recognize ourselves in them. One has the sense throughout that she is trying - she desperately wants connection and relationship, but seems to sabotage herself just when things are looking up. At the same time, her perceptiveness and way of discreetly reaching out to hurting people reminded me of my dear grandmother Omie. In "real" life, Omie did not have Olive's edge, but I could see her playing Olive in a movie.

The last story, "The River," leaves us on a hopeful note, but the book is certainly not all sunshine and happiness. Instead, Strout has done an amazing job of balancing the moments of despair with the instances of grace that characterize all of life. This is a short story collection that I will likely return to over and over again. In addition to creating this compelling character, Strout just writes well. She creates sentences and descriptions that are dead on. This collection is worth savoring several times.

Reverent Reader


At 10/15/09, 8:42 PM , Anonymous Susan K Dwyer said...

I just finished this one myself, Leslie, and I loved it. I saw my own mom in Olive, and I was just so captivated by the writing... I will certainly read it again.


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